We Didn’t Start The Fire…But…

December 7, 2014

Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start The Fire" (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).

As the rest of this sentence goes, “we poured gasoline and kerosene all over it.” And by “we,” I mean everyone who has been or remains in denial of the role poverty, greed and systemic racism plays in our lives. Every. Single. Moment. Every. Single. Day.

As an eclectic music lover, as a historian and as an educator, there are few songs I hate more than Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” Well, maybe Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” (1990) or anything by Chicago after Peter Cetera quit the group in ’85. The song was released in the fall of ’89, during my junior year at Pitt, when I’d become a history major. Every time I heard the song, I wanted to strangle Joel with it. This is the same man who wrote “Just The Way You Are” (1977) and “New York State of Mind” (1976), right? First, he wasn’t even singing in most of the song. “Einstein, James Dean, Brooklyn’s got a winning team?” Wow, I bet the coked-up songwriters for Thompson Twins wasn’t booked that weekend Joel wrote these lyrics, no?

State of Denial (2006) front cover, by Bob Woodward, December 6, 2014. (http://amazon.com).

State of Denial (2006) front cover, by Bob Woodward, December 6, 2014. (http://amazon.com).

There’s one big beef I have with the song more than any other, one that’s relevant even a quarter century later. The issue of denying responsibility. Yeah, those poor White Baby Boomers, how terrible it must’ve been for so much to happen in your lives, with so little that you could do about it, too! It’s true, though. Whether it was “JFK” being “blown away,” or the “Russians in Afghanistan,” the song is about fucked-up shit that happened between the late-1940s and when the Baby Boomers approached middle-age by the end of the 80s.

The problem was and remains the reality that they’ve been putting fuel on this fire that’s allegedly been “always burning since the world was turning.” I mean, who voted for Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’80 or ’84? Who’s blindly supported every Israeli policy for as long as they’ve been able to vote, policies that have helped incite terrorism? Who’s been in constant denial of American violence and racism as a generation, despite contributing to it their whole lives? The very same generation whom Billy Joel and his idiotic lyrics represents, that’s who!

Die-in in front of Verizon Center, Washington, DC, December 5, 2014. (Samuel Corum, @corumphoto, via Twitter).

Die-in in front of Verizon Center, Washington, DC, December 5, 2014. (Samuel Corum, @corumphoto, via Twitter).

So now in 2014, with America and the world the way it is, with daily protests now over grand jury denials of indictments for police killing unarmed Blacks, with Gaza and Nigeria and Kenya and Ukraine, with wealth so heavily concentrated in so few hands, what do these “We Didn’t Start The Fire” types have to say now? “Trayvon, Michael Brown, Garner in a chokehold?” “Hawking, Gaza, twerking from Azalea?” As if we wee Americans can abdicate responsibility for their deaths, like Pontius Pilate did in effectively condemning Jesus to crucifixion, but washed his hands of his role in the process. Who’s been front and center in supporting a police state, in advocating policies that criminalize Black and Brown bodies for taking a breath, in turning the American Dream of a middle class into a get-rich-quick scheme? Hmm, let me think about this one…

Outside of the small minority of Whites who are truly upset about and are actively involved in protests against this latest round of American injustice, many Whites have expressed how enraged they are. About die-ins in front of the Verizon Center before a Washington Wizards game. About delays in getting to their destination because the Beltway or the Lincoln Tunnel or some other thoroughfare’s been blocked by protestors with “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” signs. For this very-much-not-silent majority, these protests and the outrage and yearning for social justice they represent are major inconveniences.

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose in pre-game warm-ups, dressed in his "I Can't Breathe" protest shirt, United Center, Chicago, December 6, 2014. (http://chicagotribune.com).

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose in pre-game warm-ups, dressed in his “I Can’t Breathe” protest shirt, United Center, Chicago, December 6, 2014. (http://chicagotribune.com).

Well, that’s too effing bad! You spend your life in denial, in assuming that anything racial isn’t your fault. You deserve inconvenience, you deserve to get smacked in the face with reality while drinking your beer at a basketball game, expecting Black players to stay in their entertainer role. You don’t want to think about the real world and your role in maintaining stereotypes and oppression in it? Oh well! Grow a pair! Not of balls, though. Grow a pair of lobes! Because none of us wide-awake, “Black Lives Matter” types are going anywhere.


The Art of Interviewing Killer Cops and Other Whites on the Prowl

December 4, 2014

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (http://abcnews.go.com).

Dumb-assed George Stephanopoulos of ABC News interviewing Michael Brown murderer, former Officer Darren Wilson, November 25, 2014. (http://abcnews.go.com).

I think it would be interesting if I applied my qualitative research skills and did a sociohistorical study of the killer cops and White vigilantes who’ve gotten away or almost gotten away with murdering African Americans over the past few years. We know so much about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis, Tamir Rice, John Crawford and Jonathan Ferrell, including their arrest records, their blood-alcohol levels, their drug use, even their family members’ criminal records, if any. The media always performs a pseudo-social science-y qualitative research study on Black and Latino victims and their families and friends, in search for the perfect victim, someone to justify the outrage and anguish over state-sanctioned, cold-blooded murder.

It’s time to flip the script. I’d conduct a group interview process, bringing in the cabal of murderers, alleged and convicted, for a two-hour-long sit down. I’d ask questions about their upbringing, about the influence of popular culture in their lives, about facing down dangerous criminals carrying cigarettes, Skittles and broken toy guns. Only, my overeducated Black ass wouldn’t make it to my first question. I’d get choke-held or shot the moment I’d reach in my book bag for my digital tape recorder, even if we were conducting the interview in a public place, like the Children’s Room at New York Public Library on West 41st and Fifth Avenue. So I’d have to find one of my privileged White colleagues to interview these men on my behalf.

———————————————–

Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (http://nydailynews.com).

Overseer Daniel Pantaleo, 2014. (http://nydailynews.com).

Narrator: Today we have George Zimmerman, Daniel Pantaleo, Darren Wilson, Theodore Wafer, Michael Dunn, Tim Loehmann, David Darkow, Sean Williams and Randall Kerrick here to talk about what it takes to be a White man fighting hard to protect the world from unarmed African Americans.

Pantaleo: Shut da [expletive] up, dumb ass! Where’d ya earn that PhD, Harlem?

Dunn: Yeah, that’s telling him! I respect the law, too. Even if it has me in chains.

Narrator: Okay, everyone. We’re taping here, so wait for me to ask my questions, please.

Loehmann: I’ll give you two seconds to ask your questions. After that, I’m not promising you anything.

Narrator: My first question is about your backgrounds. Can any of you tell me how your background impacted your decision to become either a police officer or vigilante?

Wafer: I’m deeply offended by the idea that you’re calling me a vigilante. I was defending myself. I live in a bad neighborhood. I mean, who bangs on my [expletive] door at three in the morning? You come to my door that late at night, I put you in a body bag!

Zimmerman: Dude, I couldn’t agree with you more. But I wouldn’t wait. I’d hunt these assholes down first!

(Laughter rises up from group)

Darkow: I’m feeling you there, dude!

Wilson: You asked about our background. I grew up as part of a hunting and fishing family. My old man took us out to take down elk and deer every year. It made me a good shot. I could shoot a doe in the head from fifty yards away.

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: So, Mr. Wilson, are you saying that when you shot at Michael Brown, you saw him the same way you see a young female deer?

Wilson: Uh, absolutely not. As I said in my report, the perp was like Donkey Kong, like Hulk Hogan, angry, unresponsive and dangerous, more like a giant bear than a doe.

Pantaleo: Man, it’s all right to say it, because I’m thinking it, too. These [expletive] n—-s are dangerous — they all need to be put down!

Narrator: Why’s that, Mr. Pantaleo? Would you say–

Williams: Will you listen to this egghead? Questioning how we do our jobs. Like that guy in Godfather said, n—-s are animals! We have to control them, so that they only destroy themselves!

(Dunn and Wafer raise their hands to show their handcuffs)

Zimmerman (to Dunn and Wafer): Y’all were just stupid enough to get caught snorting and drinking after you defended yourselves!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

Narrator: Mr. Pantaleo, what about your background?

Pantaleo: The best training I had for the NYPD was from Tarzan and Wild Kingdom. I learned my hand-to-hand fighting skills from them. Also, WWE prepared me good, too.

Narrator: So, when you put Eric Garner in a choke-hold—

Pantaleo: It was like taking down a bull or buffalo! My heart was pumping so hard, I could feel the blood flowing inside my head! That fool should had just fallen to the ground so I could cuff his Black ass!

Wilson: And that’s what these suspects don’t get. When they see us coming, don’t walk, don’t run, don’t grab for anything, don’t hold your hands up. Lay down like you’re dead, and we won’t have to put you down.

Narrator: Mr. Kerrick, you haven’t joined the conversation yet. Do you have anything to add?

Kerrick: Just that my case is still pending. I can’t talk about it much.

Narrator: You shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, correct?

Kerrick: I can’t talk about that. I–

Zimmerman: Dude, you got a raw deal!

Pantaleo: You should work for the NYPD. Police never get indicted for going hunting here!

(Group breaks out in laughter again)

————————————————–

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, "I am the danger!" (not the only White as danger, either). (http://www.giphy.com).

Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, 2013, “I am the danger!” (not the only White as danger, either). (http://www.giphy.com).

On second thought, maybe we don’t need to apply social science thinking to these White men (in thought, if not entirely in genetics). We have a century’s worth of studies of White supremacy and systemic racism already, showing that vile men grow out of a vile system.


For What It’s Worth, My Life Matters, Our Lives Matter

November 27, 2014

Protestors hold a die-in at 14th and I St NW, Washington, DC, November 25, 2014.  (Andrea McCarren/WUSA via http://www.wusa9.com)

(For What It’s Worth) Protestors hold a die-in at 14th and I St NW, Washington, DC, November 25, 2014. (Andrea McCarren/WUSA via http://www.wusa9.com)

Between Bob McCullough, Darren Wilson, the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, the NYPD, Rudy Giuliani, the Cleveland PD, and 100 million other sources, I could easily draw the conclusion that the lives of Americans of color are only worth as much as three cigarillos or a toy gun. Or, with it being 2014, that we’re just characters in a video game in which scared Whites get to kill us for sport or out of spite. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ferguson PD allows Wilson to mount Michael Brown’s skull above his mantle after he returns from his long-delayed honeymoon, the poor racist!

But my life, your life, all of our lives are worth more than what any racist asshole or system places on us. I had to learn this lesson a long time ago. It’s the lesson that is the raison d’etre for my blog Notes from a Boy @ The Window, not to mention my book Boy @ The Window. There are literally millions of messages we as Americans of color take in over the course of our lives that for so many, our lives don’t matter. Counterintuitively, it means our lives really must matter. Why would anyone or any system expend so much time and effort excluding people on the basis of race and social status in the first place?

Café Crème cigarillos, Denmark, October 21, 2011.  (PeddderH via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Café Crème cigarillos, Denmark, October 21, 2011. (PeddderH via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Still, learning that I mattered began at home, in Mount Vernon, New York, from folks who treated me every day as if I mattered not at all. Between my Humanities and Mount Vernon High School experiences and the abuse I suffered at home, I didn’t need the additional dimension of police harassment or White vigilantism to remind me that those of us without standing, who refused to conform to acceptable ways of thinking and speaking, were discardable. Maybe that’s why I turned to nondenominational Christianity in the first place. To realize that despite it all, that I mattered to God, to a universe much bigger and much more mysterious and powerful than the fists of my stepfather or the denigration and ostracism I received at school. It all gave me reasons to live.

So when my first encounters with police harassment and White vigilantism did occur (beginning right after my seventeen birthday), I had faith in God, and with that, faith in myself as a foundation from which to draw strength. Whether at Tower Records or in Pittsburgh or in Los Angeles, and regardless of how scared I might have felt during those moments, I remained outwardly calm. I remained myself.

Yes, I was lucky. Maybe my weirdness, my proper speech, my faith, maybe even God and the universe, kept me from getting beat up or shot on sight by police, security guards or by groups of drunken White guys in pickup trucks. But really, by the time Whites (and some Black cops, to be sure) started profiling me in earnest, I had made the decision that I had worth, that my existence, creativity, analytical ability, critical reasoning, all mattered.

It helped that I had victories in my life, big and small and somewhere in between, to draw on, too. Not just my advanced education or my first publications. By the time I’d hit thirty, I’d learned how to love again, to feel again, to write again, to have fun again, to even feel pain and recover again. All of that made my life much sweeter, filled my world with color and sound and texture, with words and deeds that mattered to me and everyone who’d become important to me.

W.E.B. Du Bois in duality (double-consciousness), original picture circa 1903, November 26, 2014. (http://www.storify.com/ozunamartin).

W.E.B. Du Bois in duality (double-consciousness), original picture circa 1903, November 26, 2014. (http://www.storify.com/ozunamartin).

While there are moments that I can go there, because of the likes of Wilson, McCullough and Giuliani, the fact is, I refuse to allow dumb-assed racists to determine my life’s worth. That those folk who devalue the lives of other folk because of their -isms (racism, misogyny, homophobia, imperialism, capitalism) and ish are in fact making their own lives worth less and worthless.

While W.E.B. Du Bois was right about this “peculiar sensation…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” I don’t think I live my life in a constant state of double-consciousness. If I did, I would’ve jumped off that bridge over the Hutchinson River Parkway long before adulthood. No, up or down, I know my life has meaning, my existence is worth more than a 9mm bullet, that every sentient life matters. And like Michelle Alexander’s talk with her son this week, I’ve made sure that my son knows that his life matters, and should matter, to him, his mother, and to me.


Neoliberals, Neocons, and Other Useless Labels

November 4, 2014

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (http://comic.com).

The Matrix, Path of Neo, November 4, 2014. (http://comicvine.com).

I’ve never really had much patience for technical academic jargon, even in my wide-eyed grad school days twenty years ago. And my patience for terms like post-structuralism, post-modern, neo-Marxist and eschatological has grown government-paper-stock-thin as I’ve approached middle-age. Lately, terms like neoliberal and neoconservative have found their way into my sniper sights, especially with the ’14 midterm elections upon us. These terms may have meant something very separate and distinctive fifty or sixty years ago, but they darn sure don’t now. Except, maybe, to academicians and the elite literati, people who somehow believe that these terms are as useful as food, drink and water.

It wasn’t until grad school at the University of Pittsburgh when I became aware of these terms. Back then, I saw neoliberal or neoliberalism in everything I read about race and economic concerns. Whether it was about Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s ridiculous statistical depiction of slavery in Time on the Cross (1974), or Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s work on twentieth-century political shifts in his Cycles of American History (1986), they and the reviewers of their books used the term neoliberal like it was parsley for making pesto.

Neoconservative hasn’t been around as long, a term about a decade younger than it’s post-World War II counterpart. It’s definition has evaded most academicians and the vast majority of lay-folk over the last half-century. Sometimes it’s used interchangeably with conservative or politically conservative, sometimes it’s used in the same sentence as right-wing or the religious right or evangelicals.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. (http://jpl.nasa.gov). In public domain.

Asteroid Eros, a near-Earth object, or NEO, June 16, 2014. (http://jpl.nasa.gov). In public domain.

Though it’s definition is elusive, it’s history isn’t. Barry Goldwater’s gigantic loss to President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the ’64 Presidential Election led to a host of disaffected Democrats, old-money Republicans and other political misfits getting together and hatching a plan to dismantle the Democratic Party’s New Deal coalition. They took advantage of the racism and roiling, boiling resentment of Southern Democrats — Dixiecrats, really — toward their party, the federal government and its growing support for Blacks and civil rights. They also took advantage of wealthy Republicans and the ages-old cry of corporations desperate for lower taxes and ever-higher profit margins. All of this came together in Richard Nixon’s ’68 presidential campaign with the Southern Strategy, turning Southern voters from Democrat to Republican. Not to mention with LBJ and Vietnam, the so-called Silent Majority, and their resentment toward rebellious, privileged college students and protestors.

We know it all worked, because fifty years later, to talk of the South as a Democratic bloc today is almost as ludicrous as it was to talk about the South as being ripe for a Republican takeover in ’64. Beyond that, though, with the inclusion of evangelical Christians and other religious and social conservatives came the inclusion of traditional conservatism, neoconservatism, and neoliberalism in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and in the US’ cultural mainstream by the late-1980s.

By then, these terms neoliberal and neoconservative had lost their original meaning, if they were really that different in meaning to begin with. The Republicans had married the terms and allowed the coupling to have kids and then grandkids with names like smaller governmentderegulationlower taxes for the wealthy (so-called “job creators”) and for corporationsprison-industrial complexending abortion, welfare reformeducation reform, and voter disenfranchisement. This combination of war hawks, an unfettered version of free-market capitalism, with low government regulation and taxes on the rich and corporation, combined with high government regulation of nonconformist activities and peoples (people of color, LGBT marriage rights, women’s reproductive rights, everyone who isn’t Christian or Christian-sounding)? I don’t understand why we don’t call it what it really is.

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the nited States, 1944. (http://meetville.com).

Quote from Henry A. Wallace, Vice-President of the United States, 1944. (http://meetville.com).

Ladies and gentlemen and transgender, what we have in the US today — and have had in increasing measure for more than four decades — is a mild form of fascism, plain and simple. Yes, you can still vote, but the process is rigged from start to finish by greed and corruption and legal barriers to benefit the rich, the greedy and the corrupt. Yes, we have representation, through gerrymandered districts and hundreds of candidates with lined pockets running unopposed. Yes, we still have a Congress, a group who has done nothing to support ordinary Americans without also benefiting the top 1% in more than thirty years. A group who, in recent years, has done next to nothing at all other than raise more money to run for reelection in the past four years. As for the presidency, despite Congress’ control of the purse strings, every president since FDR’s third term has found a way to increase their political power, even as their influence on the legislative branch has decreased.

With all this, I have no use for the terms neoliberal and neoconservative. Not when all roads have led us to oligarchy, plutocracy and fascism.


The ’72 Dolphins and Baby-Boomer Narcissism

November 1, 2014

For as long as I’ve been alive, America has confronted me with its Baby-Boomer narcissism. This idea that the Boomers were the generation that forever changed the country and the world, the folks who’ve shaped our popular culture — and the response of younger generations to it — has been around for more than sixty years. The Beatles, Watergate, Vietnam, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stone, Roe v. Wade, “I Have A Dream” — Boomers have taken credit for it all. It sometimes makes me wanna puke.

Bill and Hillary Clinton (nee Rodham), circa 1971, Yale University, New Haven, CT. (Charles F. Palmer/HuffPost via http://clintonlibrary.gov/photogallery.html?galAlbum=28).

Bill and Hillary Clinton (nee Rodham), circa 1971, Yale University, New Haven, CT. (Charles F. Palmer/HuffPost via http://clintonlibrary.gov/photogallery.html?galAlbum=28).

Along with the arrogance of this constant supposition of their centrality to the sort-of-historical is the obvious factual ignorance that comes with it. It’s as if the ’80s didn’t happen and Generation X wasn’t born and didn’t grow up. Or the ’90s were only about Baby Boomers having kids of their own. Or that Boomers somehow didn’t vote for the likes of Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 — seven times in all!

But nothing, absolutely nothing, has demonstrated Baby-Boomer narcissism more than that annual rite of fall that has been the ’72 Miami Dolphins celebrating when every NFL team has lost their first game of a given season. The remaining members of that team get together with the hopes that no other NFL team finishes the season with a perfect record. It’s a sad sight watching elderly men long out of professional football show their glee on TV and in pictures when every team has at least one loss on the season. Every. Single. Year.

Yet it so represents this nation of Baby Boomers that have ruled this roost for so many years. Before most Gen Xers were old enough to vote, much less protest, Baby Boomers had coined us “slackers” and “apathetic” about life and politics. Heck, Baby Boomers took away Gen Xers’ right to drink — but not to die in war — just as the first Gen Xers turned eighteen! And for the past ten years, Boomers have turned their critical eye to Millennials, looking for flaws in their politics, voting patterns and vapid obsession with pop culture. As if Millennials didn’t cut their self-absorbed eyeteeth on a steady diet of Baby-Boomer megalomania.

President Barack Obama honors the Super Bowl VII Champions and their 1972 perfect season, East Room, White House, August 20, 2013. (UPI/Kevin Dietsch). Read more: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/08/20/Obama-welcomes-72-Dolphins-to-the-White-House/UPI-27321377029133/#ixzz3HopWhqwX

President Barack Obama honors the Super Bowl VII Champions and their 1972 perfect season, East Room, White House, August 20, 2013. (UPI/Kevin Dietsch).
Read more: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/08/20/Obama-welcomes-72-Dolphins-to-the-White-House/UPI-27321377029133/#ixzz3HopWhqwX

So when Mercury Morris or Bob Griese or elder statesman Don Shula have gone on TV year after year after year to gloat about their perfect season, it doesn’t reflect pride in their 17-0 record. It’s a reflection of their desperation, a selfish attempt to hang on to a past that is irrelevant in today’s NFL. And yes, it’s their fault. Kind of like when civil rights Boomers who claim the blood and name of the movement, yet root for younger generations of social justice activists to not do so well as them. All while taking ginormous amounts of credit for every good thing that happened during their watch years and years ago.

Is there something to be done about this? Maybe. We could try to ignore these winners of yesteryear and the annual ESPN champagne cork-popping graphic in honor of the ’72 Dolphins team. Or, better still, we can say, “Enough!” Forty-two years is long enough to celebrate the so-called perfect season. Especially when it was on a fourteen-game schedule.

As for the rest of the elite Baby Boomers, you can continue to self-aggrandize, as if three million protesters and stoners could fully represent the other 76 million Americans born between 1945 and 1961. Just remember. Gen Xers and Millennials will be the near-final arbiters of your history. It will be one in which you were as responsible preemptive war as LBJ and Robert McNamara, as accountable for NSA and a virtual police state as Nixon was for Watergate, as culpable for climate change as Ford and GM. That’s as much your narcissistic legacy as the anti-war movement and free-love.

Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start The Fire" (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start The Fire” (video screen shot), 1989. (http://denverlibrary.org/).


A Weak Legacy: The Acts of the Civil Rights Apostles at 50

October 24, 2014

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

The Acts of the Apostles (book cover), 1999. (http://books.google.com).

Yesterday evening, I attended the eleventh annual Brown lecture hosted by the American Educational Research Association at the Ronald Reagan Building here in DC. The great scholar James Anderson talked for about an hour about the connections between voter disenfranchisement and state policies that created systems of educational inequality for Blacks as part of the Jim Crow era. Anderson wondered aloud that with the recent efforts to restrict voting and with the Supreme striking down Section 4(b) (and essentially Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 if this meant a return of gross educational inequality on the basis of race and class in 2014. As if the trends of inequality only rise and fall with well protected or unprotected voting rights. Voting rights enforcement is a good barometer, but hardly the only one. The last twenty years of high-stakes testing and corporate education reform provide evidence of a trend of educational inequality that has occurred despite and (in many cases) precisely because of voter participation across all racial lines.

The following, though, is my full response, to Anderson, AERA and all of those in legacy-celebration mode with the Brown decision and the Acts in 2014 and 2015. What was true in 1964 and 1965 remains true fifty years later. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have been much more lightbulbs on a symbol of real progress — the Civil Rights Movement — than it has been an actual marker of progress. At least for those poor, Black and of color. For Whites, though, the Acts have been the sign of a post-racial America without having to work at it or talk about it. But for the adults I grew up around in Mount Vernon, New York in the 1970’s, there was a lingering hopefulness about race relations and racial equality in America that is absent these days. I don’t know if I felt it because of Archie Bunker and All In The Family or because of all those reproductions I saw of the late Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy together in the same painting over so many living-room mantles when I was six years old. Yet no matter how down or how out, so many poorer Blacks I knew back then had hope for a brighter present and future.

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag -- three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

Jesse Jackson, an Obama election sign, and the American flag — three symbols in one picture, July 2008. (http://plus.google.com).

It wasn’t as if they contemplated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act at the disco house parties my mother would take me and my older brother to, playing with other kids while the adults danced away their troubles. No, it was the idea that finally, Blacks who looked like us could pry open a door and get an opportunity to succeed in America. Or, to quote The Jeffersons‘ theme song, to “gettin’ our turn at bat.” It didn’t matter to them that the Civil Rights Act, even with all its enforcement teeth, would benefit White women and those lucky enough to be part of Black middle class more than us poor Black folk. Or if the Voting Rights Act could be thwarted by gerrymandering and state decisions to make voting harder for us. The Acts crystallized hope, symbolized a chance, however small, for a better education, a better job, and a better life, for themselves and their families.

The adults in my life were putting on a good face, though, as I came to realize when I was a preteen. My mother had once held the hope that me and my older brother would “make it” by going to college and finding “good-paying jobs.” But by the start of the Reagan Revolution, she no longer spoke in such lofty terms. My mother was hardly alone. By 1979, Blacks like Florence Grier in Bob Blauner’s oral history book Black Lives, White Lives (1989) were saying, to “tell you the truth, I’m not hopeful that we’re going to progress in the eighties as fast as we progressed from the sixties to the seventies.”

Polling back then also reflected this sense of frustration about race and over racial discrimination among Blacks, in contrast to the White sentiment that America had move beyond its racist past. In March 1981, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted their first combined poll on the state of race relations in the US. While 73 percent of Blacks in the poll saw “deep rooted continuing racial problems and blame them on discrimination…only 46 percent of the Whites agreed.”

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

First page of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (bent and warped), July 8, 1964. (http://www.ourdocuments.gov/document_data/pdf/doc_097.pdf). In public domain.

The hopes and aspirations that the Civil Rights Act symbolized have eroded with the Act itself, and are all but absent for younger generations of Americans. An MTV and David Binder Research poll from early 2014 found that 48 percent of White millennials believe anti-White discrimination is as significant as discrimination against people of color, while 65 percent of the people of color they polled believe that Whites have more opportunities for success. Even my own eleven-year-old son reflects this trend. “People were more stupid back then,” my son said to me recently while we talked about the Civil Rights Movement and White resistance to integration, as if racial inequality ended with the movement.Thanks in no small part to the success of the neoconservative movement in declaring the death of racism in the 1980s and 1990s, the generation born after 1981 does not see the federal government as the catalyst for a better life or as a leveler of any playing field.

Bruce Hornsby and The Range’s lyrics from their hit “The Way It Is” summed up the weaknesses of the Civil Rights Act and its legacy well, for us in 1986 as well as today:

Well, they passed a law in ’64

To give those who ain’t got a little more

But it only goes so far

Cause the law don’t change another’s mind…

Nor, apparently, does it create a lasting legacy of racial equality and social mobility.


Teaching Migration, In Song

October 17, 2014

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of "Living For The City," circa 1974.  (http://youtube.com).

Stevie Wonder and Wonderlove, live performance of “Living For The City,” circa 1974. (http://youtube.com).

If I ever had the chance to teach a course specifically on the history of Black migration in America, I already know what books I’d use. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns (2010); Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land (1991); James Grossman’s Land of Hope (1989); Mary Patillo’s Black Picket Fences (1999); even Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). All have moved beyond the statistics of some seven or eight million Blacks moving from the rural Jim Crow South to America’s cities, North, Midwest, West and South for the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Falsas Promesas Broken Promises, taken by John Fekner, Charlotte Street Stencils, South Bronx, New York. 1980. (Liftarn via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

But that wouldn’t be near enough to communicate the range of emotions, the psychological states and the pressures that these people faced in leaving their homes for the not-so-bright lights of America’s big cities, not to mention what they faced in the days and years after they arrived. I should know. I’m the nearly forty-five year-old son of a mother originally from Bradley, Arkansas (population 500) and a father from Harrison, Georgia. They moved to New York City in the ’60s (specifically, the Tremont section of the Bronx), then to the South Side of Mount Vernon, New York (just outside the Bronx), hooked up, and sired me and my older brother Darren between December 1967 and January 1970.

That short summary is hardly the story, though. For me — like with so many other things in my life — music tells the story, emotions and psychology beyond what words on a page alone can approximate, but not fully duplicate. Music communicates the stories, emotions and psychology of those who migrated and stayed (or didn’t) in cities across the US better than Census data or a hypothesis on proletarianization. I wanted music from my own lifetime (or at least, within a few years of it) — not just folk songs or Blind Willie Johnson or Duke Ellington — music that fit my family’s transition from migration to our current times of racism and urban poverty.

Easily the top two songs on my list to play in class would be:

Trade ad for Otis Redding's single "Try a Little Tenderness," January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

Trade ad for Otis Redding’s single “Try a Little Tenderness,” January 7, 1967. (Viniciusmc via Wikipedia/Billboard Magazine, page 7). In public domain).

1. Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” (1968), released after Redding’s death in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin; and

2. Stevie Wonder, “Living For The City,” (1973).

Both songs run the full emotional and psychological gamut. From hopefulness to oblivion, from delusion to despair, from rage and anger to resignation. The melancholy of Redding’s “It’s two thousand miles I roamed/Just to make this dock my home” (in reference to the distance from Georgia to San Francisco Bay) juxtaposed with Wonder’s bitterness and anger:

“His hair is long, his feet are hard and gritty
He spends his life walkin’ the streets of New York City
He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution
He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution…”

It communicates so much beyond the lyrics and liner notes, a reminder for those of us who find America and its cities unforgiving today just how relentless it must’ve been for our parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents forty or more years ago.

There are other songs that I’d put on this playlist. Some are directly related to Black migration, some try to bridge the gap between the abundance of music on “the ghetto” and urban poverty and chaos and the lack of music from my own lifetime on migration.

3. Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Midnight Train to Georgia” (1973).
4. Marvin Gaye, “Inner City Blues” (1971).
5. Gil Scott-Heron, “95 South (All of The Places We’ve Been)” (1977).
6. Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1987).
7. Nas (featuring Olu Dara, his father), “Bridging the Gap” (2004).

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s "urban renewal" project was built, but  failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

Pruitt–Igoe public housing projects, St. Louis, Missouri, circa 1967. This late-1950s “urban renewal” project was built, but failed and was razed in the 1970s. (Cadastral via Wikipedia/US Geological Survey). In public domain.

That most of these songs come from the period between 1967 and 1974 isn’t an accident. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement, combined with the Black Power Movement and the “Black is Beautiful” campaign, the beginning of the White backlash against civil rights — including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination — and the Anti-War Movement was in full swing. It was a good time to take a look at the present and recent past to reconnect with hopes and dreams in the midst of the nightmare of urban poverty.

After ’73 was the beginning of the dance and disco era, as well as a focus on the urban, on crime, on drugs, on poverty  — but not in a “let’s try to solve it” kind of way. This was where rap, hip-hop, some R&B and early forms of what we now call neo-soul picked up, with little reflection on this once prominent past.

Still, there would be some honorable mentions for this migration course, music that could evoke some aspect of the Black migration, of the hope that took a downward turn, of the poverty and joblessness that have permeated America, Black and White and Brown, since the ’70s.

8.  Arrested Development, “Tennessee” (1992).
9. Tina and Ike Turner (and Credence Clearwater Revival), “Proud Mary” (1970).
10. Nina Simone, “The Backlash Blues” (1967).
11. NWA, “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).
12. Tupac, “Cradle 2 the Grave” (1994).
13. John Mellencamp, “Pink Houses” (1983).
14. Bruce Springsteen, “Born In The U.S.A..” (1984). [the song’s release was thirty years ago this month, by the way]
15. Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, “Don’t Give Up” (1986)

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Nina Simone performs at a concert in 1964. (http://npr.org, via Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images).

Through music, I’d hope to have a course and discussion about Black migration that reaches beyond the words origin and destination, that migration has merely been a physical manifestation of a difficult and seemingly unending cultural and spiritual journey in the US. That Black migration can also easily include the parallel journeys of those of the African or Afro-Caribbean diaspora, not to mention those from Latin America.

For me, though, a course like this would be a personal foray into all the things that have made me who I’ve been for nearly four and a half decades — a person better than the sum of America’s parts and racist, sexist, homophobic and evangelical assumptions.


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